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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 16

Verses 1-11

Psalms 16:1-11

THE progress of thought in this psalm is striking. The singer is first a bold confessor in the face of idolatry and apostasy (Psalms 16:1-4). Then the inward sweetness of his faith fills his soul, as is ever the reward of brave avowal, and he buries himself, bee-like, in the pure delights of communion with Jehovah (Psalms 16:5-8). Finally, on the ground of such experience, he rises to the assurance that "its very sweetness yieldeth proof" that he and it are born for undying life (Psalms 16:9-11). The conviction of immortality is then most vividly felt, when it results from the consciousness of a present full of God. The outpourings of a pure and wholesome mystic religion in the psalm are so entirely independent of the personality and environment of the singer that there is no need to encumber the study of it with questions of date. If we accept the opinion that the conception of resurrection was the result of intercourse with Persia, we shall have to give a post-exilic date to the psalm. But even if the general adoption of that belief was historically so motived, that does not forbid our believing that select souls, living in touch with God, rose to it long before. The peaks caught the glow while the valleys were filled with mists. The tone of the last section sounds liker that of a devout soul in the very act of grasping a wonderful new thought, which God was then and there revealing to him through his present experience, than of one who was simply repeating a theological truth become familiar to all.

The first turn of thought (Psalms 16:1-4) is clear in its general purport. It is a profession of personal adherence to Jehovah and of attachment to His lovers, in the face of idol worship which had drawn away some. The brief cry for preservation at the beginning does not necessarily imply actual danger, but refers to the possible antagonism of the idol worshippers provoked by the psalmist’s bold testimony. The two meanings of Martyr, a witness and a sufferer, are closely, intertwined in fact. He needs to be preserved, and he has a claim to be so, for his profession of faith has brought the peril. The remarkable expression in Psalms 16:2 b is best understood as unfolding the depth of what lies in saying, My God. It means the cleaving to Him of the whole nature as the all-comprehending supply of every desire and capacity. "Good for me is none besides Thee." This is the same high strain as in the cognate Psalms 73:25, where, as here, the joy of communion is seen in the very act of creating the confidence of immortality. The purest expression of the loftiest devotion lies in these few words. The soul that speaks thus to Jehovah turns next to Jehovah’s friends and then to His foes. To the former it speaks, in Psalms 16:3, of the gnarled obscurity of which the simplest clearing up is that adopted by the R.V. This requires a very small correction of the text, the omission of one letter (Waw = and) before "excellent," and the transference to the second clause of "these," which the accents append clumsily to the first. If we regard the to at the beginning, as the R.V. does, as marking simply reference ("as for"), the verse is an independent sentence: but it is possible to regard the influence of "I have said" as still continuing, and in that case we should have what the psalmist said to the saints, following on what he said to Jehovah, which gives unity to the whole context, and is probably best. Cheyne would expunge the first clause as a gloss crept in from the margin; and that clears the sense, though the remedy, is somewhat drastic, and a fine touch is lost, "I said to Thy loved ones, -these (and not the braggarts who strut as great men) are the truly excellent, in whom is all my delight." When temptations to forsake Jehovah are many, the true worshipper has to choose his company, and his devotion to his only Good will lead to penetrating insight into the unreality of many shining reputations and the modest beauty of humble lives of godliness. Eyes which have been purged to see God, by seeing Him will see through much. Hearts that have learned to love Jehovah will be quick to discern kindred hearts, and, if they have found all good in Him, will surely find purest delight in them. The solitary confessor clasps the hands of his unknown fellows.

With dramatic abruptness he points to the unnamed recreants from Jehovah. "Their griefs are many-they exchange (Jehovah) for another." Apparently, then, there was some tendency in Israel to idolatry, which gives energy to the psalmist’s vehement vow that he will not offer their libations of blood, nor take the abhorred names of the gods they pronounced into his lips. This state of things would suit but too much of Israel’s history, during which temptations to idol worship were continually present, and the bloody libations would point to such abominations of human sacrifice as we know characterised the worship of Moloch and Chemosh. Cheyne sees in the reference to these a sign of the post-exilic date of the psalm; but was there any period after the exile in which there was danger of relapse to idolatry, and was not rather a rigid monotheism the great treasure which the exiles brought back? The trait seems rather to favour an earlier date.

In the second section (Psalms 16:5-8) the devout soul suns itself in the light of God, and tells itself how rich it is. "The portion of mine inheritance" might mean an allotted share of either food or land, but Psalms 16:6 favours the latter interpretation. "Cup" here is not so much an image for that which satisfies thirst, though that would be beautiful, as for that which is appointed for one to experience. Such a use of the figure is familiar, and brings it into line with the other of inheritance, which is plainly the principal, as that of the cup is dropped in the following words. Every godly man has the same possession and the same prohibitions as the priests had. Like them he is landless, and instead of estates has Jehovah. They presented in mere outward fashion what is the very law of the devout life. Because God is the only true Good, the soul must have none other, and if it have forsaken all other by reason of the greater wealth of even partial possession of Him, it will be growingly rich in Him. He who has said unto the Lord, "Thou art my Lord," will with ever increasing decisiveness of choice and consciousness of sufficiency say, "The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance." The same figure is continued in Psalms 16:5 b. "My lot" is the same idea as "my portion," and the natural flow of thought would lead us to expect that Jehovah is both. That consideration combines with the very anomalous grammatical form of the word rendered "maintainest" to recommend the slight alteration adopted by Cheyne following Dyserinck and Bickell, by which "continually" is read, for it. What God is rather than what He does is filling the psalmist’s happy thoughts, and the depth of his blessedness already kindles that confidence in its perpetuity which shoots up to so bright a flame in the dosing verses (cf. Psalms 73:1-28). The consciousness of perfect rest in perfect satisfaction of need and desires ever follows possession of God. So the calm rapture of Psalms 16:6 is the true utterance of the heart acquainted with God, and of it alone. One possession only bears reflection. Whatever else a man has, if he has not Jehovah for his portion, some part of himself will stand stiffly out, dissentient and unsatisfied, and hinder him from saying "My inheritance is fair to me." That verdict of experience implies, as it stands in the Hebrew, subjective delight in the portion and not merely the objective worth of it. This is the peculiar preeminence of a God-filled life, that the Infinitely good is wholly Good to it, through all the extent of capacities and cravings. Who else can say the same? Blessed they whose delights are in God! He will ever delight them.

No wonder that the psalmist breaks into blessing; but it is deeply significant of the freedom from mere sentimental religion which characterises the highest flights of his devotion, that his special ground of blessing Jehovah is not inward peace of communion, but the wise guidance given thereby for daily difficulties. A God whose sweet sufficiency gives satisfaction for all desires and balm for every wound is much, but a God who by these very gifts makes duty plain, is more. The test of inward devotion is its bearing on common tasks. True wisdom is found in fellowship with God. Eyes which look on Him see many things more clearly. The "reins" are conceived of as the seat of the Divine voice. In Old Testament psychology they seem to stand for feelings rather than reason or conscience, and it is no mistake of the psalmist’s when he thinks that through them God’s counsel comes. He means much the same as we do when we say that devout instincts are of God. He will purify, ennoble and instruct even the lower propensities and emotions, so that they may be trusted to guide, when the heart is at rest in Him. "Prayer is better than sleep," says the Mohammedan call to devotion. "In the night seasons," says the psalmist, when things are more clearly seen in the dark than by day, many a whisper from Jehovah steals into his ears.

The upshot of all is a firm resolve to make really his what is his. "I set Jehovah always before me"-since He is "always my lot." That effort of faith is the very life of devotion. We have any possession only while it is present to our thoughts. It is all one not to have a great estate and never to see it or think about it. True love is an intense desire for the presence of its object. God is only ours in reality when we are conscious of His nearness, and that is strange love of Him which is content to pass days without ever setting Him before itself. The effort of faith brings an ally and champion for faith, for "He is at my right hand," in so far as I set Him before me. "At my right hand,"-then I am at His left, and the left arm wears the shield, and the shield covers my head. Then He is close by my working hand, to direct its activity and to lay His own great hand on my feeble one, as the prophet did his on the wasted fingers of the sick king to give strength to draw the bow. The ally of faith secures the stability of faith. "I shall not be moved," either by the agitations of passions or by the shocks of fortune. A calm heart, which is not the same thing as a stagnant heart, is the heritage of him who has God at his side; and he who is fixed on that rock stands foursquare to all the winds that blow. Foolhardy self-reliance says, I shall never be moved, {Psalms 10:6} and the end of that boast is destruction. A good man, seduced by prosperity, may forget himself so far as to say it, {Psalms 30:6} and the end of that has to be fatherly discipline, to bring him right. But to say "Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved" is but to claim the blessings belonging to the possession of the only satisfying inheritance, even Jehovah Himself.

The heart that expands with such blessed consciousness of possessing God can chant its triumphant song even in front of the grave. So, in his closing strain the psalmist pours out his rapturous faith that his fellowship with God abolishes death. No worthy climax to the profound consciousness of communion already expressed, nor any satisfactory progress of thought justifying the "therefore" of Psalms 16:9, can be made out with any explanation of the final verses, which eliminates the assurance of immortal life from them. The experiences of the devout life here are prophecies. These aspirations and enjoyments are to their possessor, not only authentic proofs "that God is and that He is the rewarder of the heart that seeks Him," but also witnesses of immortality not to be silenced. They "were not born for death," but, in their sweetness and incompleteness alike, point onwards to their own perpetuity and perfecting. If a man has been able to say and has said "My God," nothing will seem more impossible to him than that such a trifle as death should have power to choke his voice or still the outgoings of his heart towards, and its rest in, his God. Whatever may have been the current beliefs of the psalmist’s time in regard to a future life, and whether his sunny confidence here abode with him in less blessed hours of less "high communion with the living God," or ebbed away, leaving him to the gloomier thoughts of other psalms, we need not try to determine. Here, at all events, we see his faith in the act of embracing the great thought, which may have been like the rising of a new sun in his sky-namely, the conviction that this his joy was joy forever. A like depth of personal experience of the sweetness of communion with God will always issue in like far-seeing assurance of its duration as unaffected by anything that touches only the physical husk of the true self. If we would be sure of immortal life, we must make the mortal a God-filled life.

The psalmist feels the glad certainty in all his complex nature, heart, soul, and flesh. All three have their portion in the joy which it brings. The foundation of the exultation of heart and soul and of the quiet rest of flesh is not so much the assurance that after death there will be life, and after the grave a resurrection, as the confidence that there will be no death at all. To "see the pit" is a synonym for experiencing death, and what is hoped for is exemption from it altogether, and a Divine hand leading him, as Enoch was led, along the high levels on a "path of life" which leads to God’s right hand, without any grim descent to the dark valley below. Such an expectation may be called vain, but we must distinguish between the form and the substance of the psalmist’s hope. Its essence was unbroken and perfected communion with God, uninterrupted sense of possessing Him, and therein all delights and satisfactions. To secure these he dared to hope that for him death would be abolished. But he died, and assuredly he found that the unbroken communion for which he longed was persistent through death, and that in dying his hope that he should not die was fulfilled beyond his hope.

The correspondence between his effort of faith in Psalms 16:8 and his final position in Psalms 16:11 is striking. He who sets Jehovah continually before himself will in due time, come where there are fulness of joys before God’s face; and he who here, amid distractions and sorrows, has kept Jehovah at his right hand as his counsellor, defender and companion, will one day stand at Jehovah’s right hand, and be satisfied forever more with the uncloying and inexhaustible pleasures that there abide.

The singer, whose clear notes thus rang above the grave, died and saw corruption. But, as the apostolic use of this psalm as a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection has taught us, the apparent contradiction of his triumphal chant by the fact of his death did not prove it to be a vain dream. If there ever should be a life of absolutely unbroken communion, that would be a life in which death would be abolished. Jesus Christ is God’s "Beloved" as no other is. He has conquered death as no other has. The psalm sets forth the ideal relation of the perfectly devout man to death and the future, and that ideal is a reality in Him, from whom the blessed continuity, which the psalmist was sure must belong to fellowship so close as was his with God, flows to all who unite themselves with Him. He has trodden the path of life which He shows to us, and it is life, at every step even when it dips into the darkness of what men call death, whence it rises into the light of the Face which it is joy to see, and close to the loving strong Hand which holds and gives pleasures forever more.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 16". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".